The Butter Did it–The Art of Reading Cookbooks

Most peo­ple have a few authors or gen­res that they pre­fer to read, often read­ing the same book many times. I’m fond of the nov­els of Tom Clan­cy and Jean Auel’s Earth­’s Chil­dren series, for exam­ple, as well as the Emma Lath­en mys­ter­ies series and the works of Ayn Rand.

But I’m also fond of read­ing cook­books, and I think there’s an art to it.

I treat cook­books like a sus­pense nov­el. Whodunit?!

Some books aren’t as inter­est­ing a read as oth­ers. The Joy of Cook­ing, for exam­ple, has so many recipes that it’s like read­ing the nov­els of James Clavell, where are so many char­ac­ters and sub­plots, not to men­tion mul­ti­ple views of the same char­ac­ter, that it’s dif­fi­cult to keep track of who’s doing what, much less why. But I own a num­ber of dif­fer­ent edi­tions of The Joy of Cook­ing, and it is inter­est­ing to com­pare how the same recipe or set of instruc­tions have evolved over the 85 years since it first came out. I think one can also get a sense of how Amer­i­can cook­ing has evolved over the years.

And for sheer bore­dom, there’s Auguste Escofier’s Le Guide Culi­naire, per­haps the clas­sic book on French cui­sine. It con­sists of 2984 recipes, many of which are vari­ants of pre­vi­ous recipes. Read­ing this book also requires pag­ing back and forth, as near­ly every recipe assumes you’ve already mas­tered mul­ti­ple oth­er recipes. In many cas­es the descrip­tions of what to do are min­i­mal, and there are few details on cook­ing times or tem­per­a­tures. I’ve always assumed the ‘how­to’ part is what appren­tice French chefs learned at the feet (and sharp tongues) of their masters.

By com­par­i­son, Mas­ter­ing The Art of French Cook­ing cov­ers much of the same ground as Escofi­er, and pos­si­bly with near­ly as many vari­a­tions. But where Escofi­er was a min­i­mal­ist, Julia Child and her co-authors would spend pages explain­ing in pre­cise detail what to do, how to do it, and most impor­tant­ly, why you need to do it. And that’s why this book has out­sold all oth­er books on French cook­ing, is in it’s 50th print­ing (the last time I looked) and remains a clas­sic, one that any­one aspir­ing to call him­self or her­self a cook should read. It’s infor­ma­tive and enter­tain­ing at the same time.

That was true of James Beard’s books as well. Beard on Bread has what amounts to an entire chap­ter that is a paen to toast. I find it dif­fi­cult to read that chap­ter with­out want­i­ng to imme­di­ate­ly go bake some­thing and then toast it!

Escofi­er, Child and Beard are all gone now, but their books (and in the case of Child and Beard, their TV appear­ances) are their endur­ing lega­cy, but there are active cook­book authors I’d love to meet and become friends with. I haven’t met Peter Rein­hart, though I own a half-dozen of his books and test­ed recipes for two of them, but I’ve exchanged a num­ber of emails with him over the last sev­er­al years. Sim­i­lar­ly, Greg Patent and I have writ­ten back and forth sev­er­al times, he even wrote back after a trip he took to Hawaii to let me know that white pineap­ple is mak­ing a bit of a come­back in Hawaii.

The ‘bible’ for cook­ing, as least to me, is prob­a­bly Harold McGee’s On Food and Cook­ing. If I want to know why some­thing hap­pens in the kitchen or want to explore a new food or cook­ing method, I turn to McGee first. The book changed how I cook, prob­a­bly in more ways than I’ll ever know.

In a more lim­it­ed sense, James Peter­son­’s book Sauces: Clas­si­cal and Con­tem­po­rary Sauce Mak­ing clar­i­fied (pun not intend­ed) my views on sauce-mak­ing and affirmed what I had already con­clud­ed about sev­er­al of the so-called ‘moth­er’ sauces. I’ll prob­a­bly nev­er make more than a hand­ful of the over 250 sauces in this book, but at least now I under­stand bet­ter what makes a sauce work and why.

I haven’t had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­verse with J. Ken­ji Lopez-Alt yet, but I’ve spent quite a few hours study­ing his book The Food Lab, and his blog posts on pie crusts and apple pie should be required read­ing for any bak­er, even if I dis­agree with him some­what on his pie crust method. (I under­stand his rea­son­ing, I just find a more clas­si­cal approach works bet­ter for me.)

What I like most about Lopez-Alt’s writ­ing is that he ques­tions near­ly every aspect of con­ven­tion­al cook­ing wis­dom. And that makes much of his writ­ing have a very O. Hen­ry qual­i­ty to it, you’re nev­er quite sure where it’s going, and I sus­pect he’s been as sur­prised at the results of some of his exper­i­ments as I was when I read what he wrote about them.

So as cold weath­er clos­es in on most of the nation, and it becomes time to curl up with a good book on a cold dark evening, con­sid­er pick­ing up a cook­book, either one you already own or a new one, and read it like you would a novel.

See if you can antic­i­pate what’s going to hap­pen next. What meth­ods will be used, what order will things be done in, and what the final prod­uct will be like?

Here’s the hard part: Don’t be tempt­ed to head into the kitchen to try a recipe or a tech­nique mid-book. Put a Post-It note on that page so you can go back lat­er, your mind will con­tin­ue think­ing about that mate­r­i­al, and by the time you go back to try it, you’ll prob­a­bly think about it dif­fer­ent­ly than when you first read it.

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Published:November 20, 2016


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    Mike Nolan

      Most people have a few authors or genres that they prefer to read, often reading the same book many times. I'm fond of the novels of Tom Clancy and Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, for example, as
      [See the full post at: The Butter Did it--The Art of Reading Cookbooks]

      Spread the word

        I have never read a cookbook like a novel. For most of my cooking days, I didn't have time. I'd leaf through and find recipes that looked enticing. If three recipes in a cookbook don't work out, I toss it. Lately, with more time, I read more of the cookbook but not all. It's a good idea, though, Mike.

        As a new bride, my sister-in-law gave me "The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery." It's an alphabetical explanation of all the foods available in the U.S. at that time. It includes recipes. It would make an interesting read, but I've never used it that way.

        I don't own any classic cookbooks, although I think one of my Italian cookbooks is by an author famous in Italy.


          I just read an interesting article about two different cookbooks - one by Anthony Bourdain and the other by Alton Brown. I also read the article about Alton Brown referenced in this one. This article and the other make Mr. Brown seem a bit tragic.

          I like to read cookbooks too. Two of my favorites are Bread Bakers Apprentice and My Bread. They are both good reads independent of the recipes in them.

          I have some classics to and some that were classics to my family. I have several editions of the The Settlement Cookbook including a reprint of the first that tells how to make the recipes over open fires or woodstoves.

          But sometimes I avoid the classic. One of my favorite baking books is Jewish Holiday Baking by Marcy Goldman. It definitely is not a classic Jewish baking book and that is part of what appeals to me as my family is not what most people think of when they think of Jews and the "classic" Jewish dishes are not the things my mom made of cooked for holidays,

          Another favorite is Rosie's. I saw it on a remainder table right after I had moved out west and was missing back East. I knew and loved Rosie's bakery and couldn't not buy it. It was this book that started me baking more than just chocolate chip cookies.

          Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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